Sunday, 25 September 2016

The Dublin Bus Tour: what sort of authenticity do you want?

When I learnt that Dublin Cityscape offers a circular bus tour of the city that is almost half the price of their main competitor, I was immediately sold, which maybe earns me the title of Dublin Cheapskate. We piled aboard at St Patricks Cathedral and took to the top deck. This first part of the route turned out to be a particularly desolate stretch; public housing in a state of mild decay, empty plots abandoned to weeds and tedious corner shops selling a predictable arsenal of goods with which to assault body and mind. To compensate for this, the driver sang us a song about a fair Dublin lady. He sang like... a bus driver.

Here is the bus's route, shown in green, which sort of resembles a bug with two antenna pointing out to the left. There were some deals thrown in at stops along the way, one them being a €1 discount on entry to the rapidly approaching Guinness Storehouse. It was a little too early in the day and we were not even 30 minutes into this two and a half hour bus tour. Another time. 

Viewed from the top deck of the bus, the city often appeared very ordinary; a mish-mash of unspectacular buildings hosting a chaotic assortment of business and people. There was no obvious magic, it looked much like a middling British city just about keeping its head above water. This first impression of Dublin lacking in style did change over time and once the eyes adjusted and I learnt more about the city's substance, the place grew on me. That process took more time than the two and half hours of the bus ride, however. Because this was a relatively long tour that included more than a few B-list locations, it inevitably showed a more flat and realistic portrait of the city. 

It would be unfair to say that the tour was uniformly mundane, however, it did also include the formal side of the city such as the official residence of the president, even if it was only seen from afar. The driver's stories and jokes were considerably better than his singling and he did include a joke about the building's current resident, the diminutive Michael Higgins.

After what seemed like an age spinning around interminable suburbs, we finally came to the city centre. Actually, it was an age of driving up and down grey streets that was lightened up  with some creative nicknames for places and monuments, the best being "the floozie in the jacuzzi". The one topic he kept returning to was the Easter Rising of 1916 which lead to the country's subsequent independence. As this year marked the 100th anniversary of this event that was to become the modern state's foundation story, it was something very much in the air. The General Post Office played a central role in the rising and we heard much of the fate of the leaders, executed by the British Army.

Time was ticking and we made a lunch stop to take advantage of a two for the price of one meal promotion that come with the tour. This was also the opportunity to try a drop of the iconic beverage and assert that it is much better drank locally. It was a fine pint but I must say I have also tasted great Guinness outside of Ireland. I rather think this aura of authenticity, drinking at the source, so to speak, is a little exaggerated. Yes I appreciate that the general standard is probably higher over here but there is also an element of exclusivity in saying you have travelled and sampled rather than just stumbling round the corner to your usual dumb local in Hounslow. Whether it be national pride or touristic kudos, there is every reason to continue to assert Guinness is better in Dublin because those who have not tried it are in no position to refute the claim. So I should rephrase my opinion: it was a superb pint, so much better than anything back home.

On the subject of beer, hopping abroad the service once again and driving on, our new driver pointed out the Dublin Convention Centre which, he said, looked like a giant can of beer being held to the mouth. If that is the product of an alcoholic imagination, I must also share one with him, it does fit.

The new driver continued more or less where the old one left off with the Easter Uprising, a narrative that was reinforced everywhere I looked. I read an interesting article How does Dublin remember? that makes the point that the manner of the remembrance is very much a reflection of the contingencies of the present. Apparently, until quite recently, the 1916 guided tours where very niche and given almost exclusively to tourists. That has changed with the implementation of the peace process in the north and 1916 less associated with an ongoing armed conflict. A noticeable absence in the narrative, however, was the Irish Civil War which followed independence, as that, presumably, could still be divisive. The Ken Loach film The Wind That Shakes The Barley is set in that period and is centred around the question of, what sort of state were the Irish rebels fighting for. It's well worth watching if, like me, your history classes at school studiously ignored this important period of Irish and British history. Not the final word, but a good place to start.

The day was wearing on and I spied one of the company's employees in the depths of a mid-afternoon lull. I remember that feeling only too well from countless summer jobs that were a character-building blot on my teenage years.

The bus stopped beside Trinity College and while waiting this song, And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, played through the sound system. I heard it afresh and, for the first time,  made a connection between Irish soldiers (then part of the British army) fighting in the 1st World War and the battle for independence that had begun back home in Ireland. That is a connection not in the original song by Eric Bogle but is a new layer that comes out in this cover of it by The Dubliners. Ronnie Drew's voice is well-matched with this song and I'm guessing his is the voice that bus drivers aspire to, a seemingly artless art that is, of course, very difficult to actually produce. 

And the old men march slowly, old bones stiff and sore. They're tired old heroes from a forgotten war.

And the young people ask, what are they marching for? And I ask myself the same question.

There is only so many hours you can spend viewing a new city from the top of a bus and it was high time to continue on foot. We pulled up beside a very louche statue of Oscar Wilde and shortly afterwards spilled out onto the street. The driver had mentioned the literary greats and how they were celebrated in the Dublin Writers Museum. When I stopped to think about it, however, they all left Dublin. I was already familiar with this phenomenon coming from the city of Portsmouth which tries to claim Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as its own on, I should add, considerably more tenuous grounds. Nonetheless, the fact that Wilde, Shaw, Joyce and Beckett all left the city in order to make their names, is not a side issue. For all the Bloom's Day celebrations that have become a part of the city's calendar, those who stayed and those who came are, I would suggest, the city's greatest literary heritage. 

And so off the bus and into Temple Bar we strode where yet another version of the authentic Dublin was on display. I daresay if I lived in the city I'd avoid the area like the plague because of the tourists, junkies and high prices. That said, unattractive though it may be, it certainly was a spectacle and might well be, for many visitors, the city's definitive one. Which sort of authenticity did I want? All of them, I'd greedily assert, and more besides. Two days was not enough.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The York Ghost Hunt: a mockery of a ghost tour?

The York Ghost Hunt is just one of several ghosts tours that ply their trade up down the city's nighttime streets and alleyways. I stumbled across it during the day, noticing the guide drumming up business around the evening's starting point, the wonderfully named street, The Shambles. Little did I know there were so many competing tours in town or that the one I was to take had had been attached in the local paper for "making a total mockery out of a beautiful and well established style of walk”. This war between competing ghost tours of York seemed to revolve around 'my' ghost hunt accepting a hen night carrying a giant inflatable phallus on the tour. Having spent a few days in York, I can see how that could happen. 

Come the appointed hour, our guide arrived in vintage undertakers garb and took cash from the large crowd that had gathered. Standing on a small set of steps, he spelt out what the tour would be in his slow, precise delivery. It became immediately clear that this tour was not going to chill or haunt, it was going to be played for laughs. He dragged in a Canadian volunteer to play the fall guy and we were off.

The complaint in the local paper, that this tour "makes a mockery" of ghost tours is more or less true, but this is clearly done by design. In a sense, this isn't really a ghost tour at all, it is a comedy show that uses the form of the ghost tour but, in another way, he did manage to tell the story of some of York's most famous haunted sites so it remains, first and foremost, a ghost tour. Somehow, ghost tours have something inherently ridiculous about them and for them to receive this treatment is not so shocking. If this were a tour of a war memorial it would be a different story: people would, ironically, be up in arms.

Although billed as a 'ghost hunt' there was no sense of this search taking place in the present tense. We were following a tour that felt like it had been given a great many times before and honed to extract the most laughs. Here it reminded me of Bizarre Bath, another popular comedy tour in an historic British city. I would have quite liked to have gone on a genuine open-ended hunt on which we didn't know where we would finish and might just as likely find ourselves in a KFC as a graveyard. But no, no self-respecting ghost would be seen dead in a fast food outlet. We instead followed a spectral topography: a 15th century townhouse, the steps of the famous York Minster and a medieval alleyway. One of the exciting things about history is its spatial anarchy: Richard III's body was found in a municipal car-park in Leicester. Here, however, everything went to support an idea of the city and its sites that was essentially touristic in origin. That should be no surprise since this is a show for tourists.

With the light now failing, it became difficult to capture any more pictures of the tour. There is however a clip on Youtube that gives a good flavour of the York Ghost Hunt.

We ended the tour with the story of a gruesome child murderer after which the crowd drifted off in all directions, none the wiser but entertained for an hour or so. The jokes were often crude but never became obscene, this remained a family event. To return the question of whether of not it is appropriate to parody a ghost tour, I have to conclude that it is. Most ghost tours already include some self-conscious comedy because a completely serious ghost hunt would probably come over as cranky. Where this tour differs from the others is that it looks at ghost tours primarily as content to be ridiculed, and the form as a very handy hook upon which to hang the show and sell it to a mass audience. This formula is portable in space and genre and it might even be a good a thing to have one or two jokers in the pack, like this, in order to keep the more conventional tours on their toes. I'd caution against the idea of a 'good old days' when tours played by the rules; formats evolve and have to stay relevant to the public, who vote with their feet. I'd be perfectly happy if all the city's comedians decided to leave the bars and clubs and make their shows on the street instead. That is not likely to happen and this will remain a speciality dish that still leaves more than enough space for serious tours, if such a thing still exists and is not itself a phantom.

Friday, 16 September 2016

The Rewildings Tour: Walking out of London on a line at 200°

Rewildings is a year-long series of walks that I heard about through the Walking Artists Network. I did not know quite what to expect, the instructions were starkly simple: "Meeting @ statue Charles I, Charing Cross Roundabout" ... "come prepared to sleep wherever we get". Oh and over the day we would walk in a line at 200° and should avoid electronic communication and purchases. I arrived a little before the start time of 9AM and sat solitary at the base of the former monarch, notable for being executed for treason and soiled by London traffic fumes. More or less on the stroke of nine, the other five of the group descended upon the traffic island, we exchanged pleasantries and were off.

For the most part we stuck to the roads and public paths and only once did we find ourselves in a true impasse needing to retrace our steps. A little later, in a park, we had to climb out, a task made more sporting by the backpacks laden with camping gear and provisions. 

The river interrupted our flow south south west and sent us upstream in search of a bridge. We were dressed as hikers not urban walkers so, encountering perhaps the single most important landscape feature of the city, we were, in a sense, meeting a kindred spirit.

This was a common dilemma: which direction to follow at a junction? We tended to decide through a form of collective navigation. If you had a compass, you had a say, and we went with majority opinions. There was some room for manoeuvre and persuasion and I heard things like, "it could be argued that it is this way." Walking at 200° was an art not a science and the principles by which we proceeded were never formalised. We instead decided through action such questions as, "how far do you insist on holding to the straight line? Do you go through buildings? Do you allow yourself to act upon foreknowledge of the route? If you are diverted, do you then try to correct for it and find again your original line or do you simply proceed from where your diversion has taken you? 

We passed many curious sites that could be written into a narrative of their own but, in my mind, they simply remain nodes of a suburban esoteric map that slipped by either side of us. This walk was much more about the journey, for me, than about sensitivity to the sites we passed through. The purposeful line and target of reaching the limits of the city saw to that. What remains in my memory is the transformation of the city over the course of the day and the company of the group. These were the two constants.

The southern suburbs also included an industrial estate with an ironically pastoral name. This brought me back to a walk I undertook some years ago, a walk which also started in Trafalgar Square, though at dawn, and which had me walk for one day in the direction of the sun. That walk revealed South London in a different way: grittier estates and industrial decline sat alongside banal burbs and all of them cut across by many more train lines that required continual picking around. Was this difference in texture purely due to the luck of the route? Or, perhaps unconsciously, was I attracted to squalor, or this group to respectability?

We came to the River Wandle. This river has come into vogue of late with a resurgence of interest in the lost rivers of London. That interest is not so far away from the spirit of this walk which reframes the city as the interplay between the natural environment and the very human historical and contemporary construct. I asked the initiator of these walks, a tall energetic research scientist named Morgan who once walked from Mexico to Canada, what the inspiration or purpose of Rewildings was. The walks, he said, were something he wanted to do to gain a perspective upon and connection to London, a city he had moved to after spending several years in California. Taking pictures, scribbling notes and dropping into conversations throughout, I can see how this could, over a year, offer a very rich and rewarding experience of the city.    

As the afternoon wore on, the city started to thin out. We were in the land of the dog walkers. After this came the hills of the North Downs and secretive mansions hidden away behind high wooden fences. We had entered Operation Yewtree arrest zone.

The early evening took us as far as Banstead in deepest South London. While there had been talk earlier of breaking out of London's girdle, the M25, we were consulting no maps and this barrier was still out of sight. We had been walking over unpaved paths for some time and while the presence of the city was never entirely lost, we were in the rolling North Downs and avoiding golf courses more than shopping centres. The line we held, it tuns out, was not at 200° but closer to 190°. Maybe there was some over-correcting for the Thames dragging us westwards, maybe we were not as faithful as we could have been or maybe the roads really do lead in that direction.  

We gazed over the patch of green that chance had brought us to and drank wine as the dusk gathered. When the last of the late summer sun fell behind the trees, we retreated to our woodland clearing campsite. While the communal dinner of smoked tofu and vegetable stew was heated up I picked out stones from below me and set up my tent. What a difference a hot meal makes! Early to bed with warmth inside, I crawled into the tent and quickly relaxed into a deep, restorative sleep.

Restorative, that was, until I awoke with flints poking into my back in the depth of the night. I should have been a little more vigilant with clearing the ground earlier with the price being nocturnal twisting like a kebab turning in slow motion. The following morning we rose early, phones came out in force, located us and plotted a route to the nearest station. The cold light of day revealed us to be depressingly close to London and well within the Oyster card zone. Climbing aboard one of the beleaguered Southern Railways trains, we headed back into the city annulling a day's walking in less than half an hour. The Rewindings walks continue till the end of the tear with a highlight being the 320° New Year's Eve walk.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Way-losing in London: how to get lost in the capital

Some years ago I produced a map, not unlike the one above, which re-imagined London by stripping back the names of tube stations so that they simply described what was to be found at their site. Oxford Circus thus becomes Circus while Westbourne Park can be renamed either bourne or Park. One of the ideas here was to remove the familiar markers, often denoting ownership and association, and to see afresh the city as a collection of sites. 

This is a detail of the above map that includes our starting point. Since we has not decided whether we'd be venturing north or south of the river on our disorientation mission, it felt right to begin our journey in the uncommitted zone of a bridge over The Thames. We set out  in the direction most of us knew the least: North West. This didn't initially yield anything very unusual; we quickly arrived at a barrier clad Trafalgar Square with bikes circling and modest crowds murmuring their modest approval. As we snaked our way through Mayfair and Marylebone we stopped to discuss what being lost might look like and in response to this, we switched our logic of navigation several times so as to remain on the scent of being lost rather than progressing in too calculating a way towards our indeterminate goal. While none of the various approaches could possibly deliver us to the promised land while still in this most familiar of terrains, they all did their part in paving the way. We became more sensitised to the particularities of the sites we encountered, though unlike the above map where they sit isolated from one another in a sea of white, ours were still connected by our mental threads.

We squeezed onto a bustling double decker heading north and after some time stepped out at what was to be a random, and hopefully mysterious, bus stop. Chance delivered us to Golders Green, a Jewish neighbourhood in NW London that was, for a few of us, still relatively familiar. Getting lost was not going to be so easy after all. We walked through some side streets now thinking about an afternoon pause, and whilst I was chatting away on the subject of New York City's space vrs London's, we happened upon a pizza and sushi canteen. Their margherita was indeed the New York style: thin crust loaded with cheese. We ate and took stock of our wanderings.

The afternoon continued with an altogether more concerted attempt to break the mental map by alternately leading and being led through the streets with eyes closed. We must have looked quite a sight: several couples tottering slowly along quiet backroads, narrowly avoiding trees, lampposts and bushes. Forty minutes later, we arrived at a state of complete disorientation. This best stab I could manage at our location would be to say we were 'somewhere in the Golders Green area', beyond that and I'd just be making it up. 

Our endpoint revealed itself when I opened my eyes onto a large suburban house with a curious public / private bench marking its perimeter. Unlike previous attempts at way-losing (Beijing, Birmingham, Santa Cruz de Tenerife) where there was equal emphasis upon the construction of narratives, we were way too solid with our London directions so had to approach the problem of getting lost very directly. This black and white house, then, was familiar as an idea when I looked at it (I had previously lived in Stamford Hill, another Jewish neighbourhood in London) but when I started to examine it and the roads passing in front of and behind me more closely, they became not so familiar after all. The more I looked the stranger and more particular it seemed to become. This corner held all manner of details in excess of my first impression of the place, an impression I might very well have stuck with if I were passing through normally. Not being able to locate this place, then, made it all the more vivid as it had escaped the illusion of control and mastery. Walking on from here and attempting to now find our way, the roads remained more alive. A voice from a distant PA drifted over, an inscrutable enthusiasm that could have been intoning anything from children's sports to ethnic cleansing. Roads looped in on themselves refusing to behave. For a short space of time, I found again the newcomers bewilderment. This makes me realise that this fragile state should not be surrendered so quickly but rather savoured to the very fullest. Watch out for this next time, which should be happening later this autumn: details coming soon!

Saturday, 3 September 2016

The Trinity College Dublin Tour

Trinity College Dublin is a university campus that has well and truly gone over to the other side and embraced tourism in a big way. Not only is the place crawling in tourist groups, there are also official tours. These tours are given by students and last just half an hour. Our guide gathered the twenty of us together and introduced herself as a Trinity politics and philosophy post-graduate who had just managed to spill coffee over herself.

The tour is essentially a walk around the historical architecture followed by a chance to view the centrepiece of the library's collection, The Book of Kells. It's all quite pretty and sort of historic, but it struck me that there was some serious overselling going on here.

The name of the company running the tour was Authenticity Tours. What a name! Not content with merely offering an authentic tour (as opposed to those rotten, fake tours) they are giving tours of authenticity itself, "Can't you just feel the authenticity dripping off this monument?" This issue of authenticity in the tourist experience is an interesting one and there has been quite some thinking and writing about it. A quick online survey brought me to an article by Marinus Gisolf, for example, which makes several distinctions in the types of authenticity with object related authenticity (subdivided into material, conceptual  contextual and functional authenticity), symbol related authenticity and experience related authenticity. In many ways, authenticity is the elephant in the holiday maker's hotel room with each tourist touching a different part of the quasi mythical beast. 

We stopped in front of one of the large maple trees that fill the lawn at the back of the first courtyard. and dutifully listened to a theory of there being many dead bodies buried underneath the trees and feeding their abnormal development. And here I have dutifully repeated it. A story good for the tourists.

The tour had a pervasive negative tone because the guide frequently placed herself above everything at Trinity, describing it all as a little bit crap. I'm all for criticality in a tour and breaking out of the tourist bubble in which, conversely, everything is wonderful, but the effect of this persistent cynical tone was to drain the tour of passion and, finally, purpose. I can easily imagine her complaining to her classmates about the stupid tours and tourists she has to put up with in order to be able to live in over-priced Dublin. While she had identified things to be against and to poke fun at, she had not replaced them with anything that actually interested her, nor did she find joy in the encounter with the public. I was a student once and recognise this state of mind, I could even say that this tour was an authentic cynical lefty student take on a large, historical institution. That does not excuse it, however, from the duty of engaging positively and treating the public as equals.

With the guided tour over we were then invited to take a look at The Book of Kells exhibition, also included in the ticket. Photography is not permitted within the exhibition rooms so this image from the book is one of the pages made available online. The exhibition is basically panels and videos that explain what the book is, how it was made, who made it, where it was found and so on. It reminded me of an exhibition I saw in Shanghai that was trying to authenticate a Mona Lisa style painting as an original Da Vinci and which was also 95% art history, building you up for the big event in the final room. The payback there was not enough and neither was it here in Dublin: the pages of the book are not much larger than a train timetable and just two of them are on display. Worse still, because it was near closing time and the guards wanted to get home, they abandoned the normal queuing system and let everyone pile forwards into a rugby scrum around the display case. Viewed up close, in the dim light, surrounded by an impatient, shoving tourist huddle, it was very far from a religious experience. If this original artefact was meant to be bestowed with an aura of authenticity, I'll be dammed if I could sense it in the ten seconds I was in front of it before being elbowed out the way by a family from Grimsby. There was just about enough time to compare the book with the images of it that I carried in my head, affirm that it was similar, if smaller, and then head on to the library.

The library was conspicuously old fashioned; preserved for photo ops and film shoots.

At the end of the article on authenticity and tourism there is a curious note on non-places and anti-authenticity. "It is enough to simply mention the existence of these black voids in the cultural universe." It does not go further but I rather feel non-places and tourism share a more intimate relationship. The gift shop that we were ushered into by world weary guards, must surely be just one of those non-spaces that so typically adorn and monetise cultural sites. The way tourism and consumerism are now near synonymous has led to a mushrooming of such spaces, along with the chain cafes and restaurants that are waiting just round the corner to soak up your euros. I think this phenomenon of tourism generating non-places, is something I should study a little more closely, it is always somewhat in the air but when travelling we usually focus on what is culturally specific rather than the frame which defines it.